Traditional Horse Training Methods



Traditional horse training methods rely on dominating the horse and breaking its spirit. The term used to train a horse to saddle or harness is breaking in. 

In the past a lot of emphasis has been put on the breaking part of the phrase. The horse was forced into submission by the breaker and the whole process was based on fear and cruelty.

Cowboys breaking in a horse

There are many traditional ways of breaking and training horses, but all rely on depriving the horse of its main defence - flight. Let us have a closer look at the various stages of training found with the more traditional horse breaking processes.

1.  Tying up 

In this phase a young horse, barely handled, would be run into a yard, roped around the neck and tied to a sturdy post. 

Unaccustomed to being restrained the horse would fight the rope until it was exhausted and stood still. This lesson would be repeated daily until the horse accepted being tied up. 

horse with catching rope around it

2.  Bagging down

The horse would then be "bagged down" to quieten it down further. 

As the name suggests the horse would have a wheat sack or saddlecloth flapped and slapped against its body until it was no longer frightened. The horse would probably be hobbled during this procedure to restrict its movement. 

Hores being bagged down

3.  Saddling 

Once the horse was used to all this flapping and restraint, it would be introduced to a girth either by saddling the horse or using a roller. 

picture of horse wearing breaking roller

The introduction of the girth would again require some form of restraint, either hobbles or a sideline (a type of restraint that lifts one hind leg off the ground so the horse has to stand on three legs). 

The horse would then probably be encouraged to buck out until it realised it could not get rid of the saddle or roller strapped onto its back. Once this equipment was accepted, the horse could then be mouthed. 

4.  Mouthing

This process invariably consisted of putting a bit in the horses mouth and tying the reins back to the saddle or roller, leaving the horse with its head tied like this for hours on end.

horse wearing side reins

The horse would lean and fight against the bit until the mouth was rubbed raw. Then in an attempt to relieve the pain it would stand with its neck arched so the bit would not touch the corners of its mouth. 

5.  Driving

The horse might then be driven in long reins, or have the reins pulled left and right with the breaker on the ground. 

The horse would react in any way that would relieve the pressure of the bit on its very sore mouth. 

Diagram showing a person long reining a horse

Source: ANTA 1999

Usually the horse would just give to the pressure, but some would simply panic with the infliction of even more pain fight even more. This unacceptable reaction would result in more beatings, and the risk of injury to both horse and handler was high. 

6.  The first ride

Once the horse had a mouth it was then ready to be ridden. Again it would be restrained in some way placed in a bucking chute, blindfolded, twitched, its ear twisted or even makeshift hobbles that could be removed once the rider was aboard. 

The horses reaction to something on its back, presumably a predator about to rip open its jugular vein, was to take whatever action was necessary to get this thing off! The riders job was to stay on board until the horse stopped bucking. 

Picture of someone try to stay on a horse

Photo courtesy of U.S. Bureau of Land Management

Once the horse stopped bucking and would move around with the rider on its back it was deemed to have had its spirit broken and could then be ridden.

That so many horses started in this manner and went on to become good, reliable riding horses is more a tribute to the adaptability of the horse than it is to the method used. Horses who refused to adapt to these methods were labelled as mad and dangerous, and were considered outlaws.

That is not to say however that many good horseman incorporate some of these techniques into their horse training, and do so successfully.  Some of these included J.D. Wilton, Steve Brady, Steve Jeffery, John Pinnell etc.

Training through dominance, fear and pain

The traditional methods of breaking and training horses rely on the use of dominance, punishment, fear and pain. 

Fear is an extremely strong, even overriding emotion particularly in a prey animal like the horse.  A frightened horse learns nothing helpful and can think of nothing but escaping from the source of its fear or, if cornered defending itself. 

It is easy to cause fear in the horse and as far as training is concerned, fear is counter-productive. It is also dangerous. In handling horses, actual fear should be avoided.

Pain creates very similar emotions to fear.  Horses are very sensitive creatures capable of being severely hurt by a vicious cut from a whip. 

Occasionally there are times when a blow from a whip may be necessary with a downright disobedient, bullying horse, to let it know that if it does something unacceptable the result will be unpleasant.  However, repeatedly beating and inflicting pain will invariably lead to a resentful, unpredictable animal. 

Negative reinforcement

Traditional horse training practices rely very much on negative reinforcement for unacceptable or unwanted responses or behaviours, and very little on reward. 

Horse and trainer with a whip

"Facing up using a whip is a good example of negative reinforcement that is used in traditional breaking techniques.

The evolution of the horse suggests that they will respond better to control based on non-violent leadership and instruction. In the wild this tends to come from signs and signals from other horses. In the domestic situation we want horses to respond to us. 

For really effective training, we need to be aware of the natural signals which we can communicate to the horse like beware, relax, stop and move on. The horse must also be taught many new responses.

The benefits of bonding

The humans relationship with the horse will affect the ease with which this information is communicated. 

A horse that is dominated by violence and punishment techniques is fearful and not in an optimal state to learn. 

A horse with which a close mutual bond is formed is in a much better state to respond to our requests because of its natural tendency to co-operate with social partners. 

This relationship is developed from spending time together, and in sharing socially important activities like mutual grooming. 

grooming a horse

When training a horse it is important to use signals the horse can understand to establish a position of control rather than dominance.




TAFE NSW Commission January 2002  Version - 1.0 (of this page)

Australian National Training Authority, 1999, RGR020A - Manage the Education of Thoroughbreds
     Australian Training Products, Melbourne
Lyons J. and Browning, S. (1991). Lyons on horses. Doubleday, New York, NY, USA.
Miller, R.M.  (1991) Imprint training of the newborn foal. Western Horseman, 
     Colorado Springs, CO, USA.
Mills, D. and Nankervis, K. (1998) Equine behaviour: principles and practice
     Blackwell Science, Osney Mead, Oxford, UK.

U.S. Bureau of Land Management, [Online]

Last saved by 03/06/2004